“My Life On My Back”: GIRLS and Rape Culture

If you haven’t heard of Lena Dunham’s hit show Girls, you might be living under a bit of a rock. The show has been deemed something you just don’t find anywhere else on TV. Some people love it, some people hate it – some people hate seeing Dunham naked (she not only writes, but also acts, directs, and produces). Left and right, there have been lots of controversy buzzing around both her (not size zero body) and her show.

Lately, season two has taken a dark turn. (Spoiler alerts ahead.) The characters are more isolated than ever. After a failed marriage and hurtful encounter with her emotionally abusive father, Jessa has disappeared into thin air. She is a “free spirit,” but one carrying heavy wounds from her past. Shoshanna no longer has her “dreaded” virginity badge, but she has cheated on her first boyfriend who she “loves.” Marnie has been on a downward spiral since the beginning of the season: sleeping with a gay man, being downsized from her job, becoming a hostess, dealing with a gaping rift between her and her best friend Hannah, and entering a “relationship” because she wants Booth’s life. It seems she was on a slightly better note last weekend when she finally admitted her lifelong dream of wanting to be a singer – but apparently this translated to suddenly singing a terribly slow remix of Kanye’s “Stronger’ at her ex’s party. And then having sex with him. Meanwhile Hannah has fallen back into her OCD ways under the stress of a stalkerish ex-boyfriend (Adam) and a (e-)book deal that she has to finish by the end of the month. She’s so stressed that she punctures her ear with a q-tip. Yeah. That was a ridiculously painful scene to watch. None of the girls are in a good place. In fact, this whole episode reeked of self-destruction and awkwardness.

But the worst of it all is in the scene that people can’t stop talking about. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about: does Adam rape Nat? The episode begins with Nat(alia) and Adam having sex for the first time.  “I’m ready to have sex now,” she announces. They begin kissing as she lists all her preferences. “I like how clear you are,” Adam tells her. “What other way is there?” she asks. It seems that they are going to be a hopeful and cute couple.

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This beginning starkly contrasts with the scene everyone keeps talking about (get a full recap here). Some context is that Adam, in attending a party Nat, he runs into Hannah on the street. She’s walking home from the hospital after her q-tip accident. Soon after, he breaks his AA pledge. The background song gives their bar dancing a nice mood, as a woman sings, “I love you…” but then drifts off into a minor chord. Later, we find the couple in Adam’s apartment. He demands she gets on all fours. She thinks he’s joking, but he repeats himself. She looks uncomfortable, but does it. “Crawl to my bedroom.” She begins to, reluctantly, and complains about the dirt and nails on the floor. He suddenly grabs her, throws her on the bed, and tells her, “I want to fuck you from behind, hit the walls with you.” She agrees, but when he starts touching her, she protests, “No – look, I didn’t shower today so…” “That’s fine, relax,” Adam says. He begins fucking her, and as he does so he asks that she confirm that she likes how he looks, his apartment, and that she really likes him. The camera stays focused on her face, which clearly looks uncomfortable and distressed. Her “yeah”s seem halfhearted at best. After several thrusts, he pulls out and starts masturbating over her. “No no no – no! Not on my dress!” She pulls off her top and looks away with a grimace as Adam finishes himself on her chest. “I don’t think I liked that… I like really didn’t like that,” she says finally. The look on her face is heartbreaking.

Was it rape?

It seems everyone is putting it under the category of “gray rape” or “bad sex.” She didn’t scream out “no” or “stop,” she did get on the floor, he didn’t end up finishing on her dress. But it boggles my mind that anyone would say it’s a consensual scene. “Bad sex” happens, but it’s different. It might be when a position doesn’t work or someone doesn’t orgasm – but the difference between “bad sex” and “rape” is when one person dominates the other. It’s about Adam’s power as he dominates her and gets reassurances that she likes his place, his face, and who he is. Nat isn’t really a part of the picture. She clearly wasn’t enjoying herself and she did say “no,” but Adam ignored it. He knows what he’s done: “I’m so sorry I don’t know what came over me. Jesus, I feel dizzy. Is that it? Are you done with me?” It’s not a heartfelt apology or excuse – he cares more about himself than how violated she feels. But he knows – because how can you not know? Yes, yes, she didn’t push him off, she didn’t scream “stop,” she didn’t do anything that would have reassured all the critics that it’s “rape” and not “gray rape,” but does that make her any less violated? Did she truly give consent?

After watching an episode of Girls, I like to read some of Slate‘s or Huffington Post‘s commentaries. This week, I only found Slate‘s review by David Haglund and Jeffrey Bloomer. Interestingly they described the scene as “exceedingly uncomfortable sex” and it leaves Nat “feeling debased, even borderline assaulted.” They’re hinting towards rape without saying. Why are we so afraid of calling this scene rape? Probably because things like this happen all the time. So to call it rape seems to make it a bigger deal – like being forced in a dark alley. What do I mean by this happens all the time? Most rapes are not with strangers, but with people we know: acquaintances, friends, and yes – even boyfriends.

A good friend of mine was raped – by her longtime boyfriend no less. It eerily shares some similarities between the Girl‘s scene. They were on a hard, bathroom floor. When my friend protested, and was clearly distressed by the floor, her boyfriend’s response was to coerce her and to practically pick her up and throw her onto the bed before proceeding to have sex without her consent. She knew something was wrong, but it was hard to figure out what, and that’s because it’s incredibly hard to wrap your mind around rape, especially when you are in a loving relationship with your rapist. That’s what makes rape trickier and why most women don’t report it. With someone you love and have sex with on a frequent basis, do you need to actively seek consent every time? The answer is yes, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

Having asked some of my friends about these gray areas, I’ve learned that men can become blinded by a sexual haze. They are so into it, they don’t always register how uncomfortable – or unwilling – you can be. I think this is partially why men can get so afraid of rape accusations. They lost control and suddenly there is this huge looming fear of the label “rapist.” But the truth is anyone can be a rapist. At Harvard, there are rapes every year.

A lot of people have recoiled in disgust and horror at the “On All Four” scene with Adam and Nat, but I’m actually glad Lena Dunham wrote the risky scene because as much as I hated watching it, I loved that someone was finally bringing this up on TV. We hear about date rape and how people we know are often the rapists, but we are all so reluctant to really think about it. Nat did say “no,” but Adam brushes off her cues to stop (“I haven’t showered”) with “That’s fine, relax.” He’s not listening, and if he is he’s not caring. They don’t have sex – he fucks her. He thrusts into her several times before pulling out to finish himself on her when she explicitly doesn’t want him to. That’s not sex – that’s a man fucking a woman for his own pleasure without any care to what she wants. Rapes happen – they aren’t figments of imagination. The only way to address is to first admit that even the best of men don’t always realize that they haven’t received consent, and the second is to stop running away from rape. It’s not “bad sex” and it’s not “gray rape” – it’s just rape.

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5 thoughts on ““My Life On My Back”: GIRLS and Rape Culture

    • Alice L says:

      Thank you so much! Yes, the topic has been popping up a lot… When I wrote this piece (a week or so before I posted it because I wanted my friend to read over the section about her and give her approval), I wasn’t yet aware of the other huge event in the news… I know people viewed this episode of Girls as “disturbing” and demanded why Dunham would show us such things, but she is showing us because people like to brush it under the carpet. And that’s how we never learn. Boys need to be taught what is and isn’t consent — and they need to be taught to respect it. They will never be taught in a world that shields them from what the fuzzy line of rape is. Again, thanks for reading!

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  1. I watched the first season via Netflx DVD and so will now have to wait a long time for season two. Therefore, I read the beginning and end of your post. A brave and convincing analysis. I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote to Trendswithbenefits that boys need to be taught what is and isn’t consent. What’s the most effective ways to do that I wonder?

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    • Alice L says:

      Thanks for reading, even though you haven’t started season two! You pose a really good question about how to teach boys what is and isn’t consent. I think it’s hard at the moment because people (Americans particularly) are so squeamish about sex. We call it “the birds and the bees” – which, honestly, don’t make sense because birds don’t mate with bees.

      So how boys learn about sex today is 1) porn and 2) rated R scenes from movies and TV. So if we are learning about consent by porn…well, it’s already going downhill because women are portrayed as sexual objects that tend to be demeaned in some way or another. As for the rated R scenes, there tends to never be vocal consent, but rather a tense “sexy” silence. I think this is where people think that speaking up is “unsexy” and “messing up the mood.”

      Moreover, the more I think about it, the more I think that girls should be taught to give consent. Boys need to learn to distinguish between consent and nonconsent, but girls aren’t really taught to give consent. They are taught to scream “no” when they don’t want anything, but what about the in between? Where they want some, but not all?

      Sorry for the long rant, but clearly you have me thinking. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post! Again, thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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  2. Reblogged this on mightyfemme and commented:
    In my opinion this is a show that everyone in our generation needs to watch. I feel that there is so much to relate to. As a young woman in college, I feel a special connection with each and every character. The characters may each seem completely different from each other but they all have something in common: a journey to discover who they are and where they belong in the world.
    Although this article focusses one specific event in the series, I believe that this also gives an insight on what to expect from the series.

    I can not stress it enough! Lena Dunham is the voice of our generation!

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